is the mla about literature anymore?

Phil Magness is at it again. In a recent blog post, he presented the results of a very simple exercise. Go to the Modern Language Association web site, search for the number panels on specific authors (e.g., Shakespeare or Toni Morrison) and compare with the number of panels you find if you search for topics relating to politically controversial topics like climate change. The results? I will quote Phil here:

So…I decided to take a look. The following rough tallies show the number of MLA 2017 sessions that included at least one paper or presentation on an overtly political topic.

  • 22 sessions featured one or more presentations on environmental justice themes (e.g. climate change, ecology, animal rights/extinction, and resource extraction)
  • 15 sessions featured one or more presentations on “globalization”
  • 39 sessions featured one or more presentations on “postcolonialism”
  • 8 sessions featured one or more presentations on adjunct activism or “contingent” academic labor
  • 10 sessions featured one or more presentations invoking “neoliberalism”
  • 3 sessions featured one or more presentations on the politics of boycotting (usually tied to the Israel-Palestine conflict)

Some of this is standard fare, especially in Critical Theory-infected disciplines. But I was also curious how it stacked up against what most people think of as the scholarly domain of English professors, which is to say the standards of the literary canon. For comparison, here are the number of sessions that include at least one paper on a prominent literary figure’s work:

  • 13 sessions mentioning William Shakespeare
  • 5 sessions mentioning Charles Dickens
  • 1 session mentioning Mark Twain
  • 2 sessions mentioning William Faulkner
  • 2 sessions mentioning Ernest Hemingway
  • 3 sessions mentioning Jane Austen
  • 4 sessions mentioning Samuel Beckett
  • 4 sessions mentioning James Joyce
  • 4 sessions mentioning Virginia Woolf
  • 1 sessions mentioning Leo Tolstoy
  • 1 session mentioning Toni Morrison
  • 3 sessions mentioning Edgar Allen Poe
  • 3 sessions mentioning Langston Hughes
  • 2 sessions mentioning Emily Dickinson
  • 1 session mentioning Ralph Ellison
  • 1 session mentioning Walt Whitman
  • 2 sessions mentioning George Eliot
  • 2 sessions mentioning one of the Bronte sisters
  • 0 sessions mentioning George Orwell



I have a few quibbles here and there. Some of the topics are literary, but do not appear so to outsiders.* But Phil’s got a point. When boycotting Israel gets more attention than Emily Dickinson, it’s just not right. Something’s rotten in the state of literary criticism.

So, now what? Rather than ridicule the parade of the offended, I’d rather be constructive. First, the MLA leadership should simply put a cap on this sort of thing. Period. Unless it has a very concrete connection to literature and culture, don’t approve. Second, create a parallel organization dedicated to activism. If people want to do it, fine. But don’t let a scholarly organization turn in a political organization. Third, in a hypothetical “activism in the academy,” actually invite people who have experience in politics – activists, office holders, political professionals, etc. who can give real insight and explain how academic might effectively pursue their ideas in a pluralistic democracy.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

* For example, “postcolonial theory” means the body of theory that describes societies after decolonization and how that is reflected in their cultural productions. So, postcolonial theory could very easily literary in application, but it could also easily lead to endless “theory talk.”

Written by fabiorojas

January 18, 2017 at 12:01 am

12 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I don’t think Magness is wrong that many literary scholars have an outsized conception of the radical potential of their work. But neither does his analysis here demonstrate that the scholars at this conference are actually exceeding their professional competence. First, there’s little reason to think that measuring references to individual authors in paper titles is a useful exercise for this purpose. That’s not the only way to use a literature degree! Just following up on the links to panel descriptions, most of the ones he singles out refer to “aesthetics,” “narratives,” and similar terms that are admittedly broad, but at the very least literature-adjacent. I think that speaks to much of the concern about environmental justice, in addition to your point about “postcolonial.” Second, surely it’s within the scope of the MLA to study the political implications of works of literature, and the literary dimensions of political rhetoric?

    As far as obviously-not-literary political activism and academic labor conditions go, I think your suggestions are reasonable. It makes sense to separate those concerns and give them either a distinct place in the program or their own organization (though I think it would be just fine to keep them under the umbrella of a single association).

    One slightly distinct point to emphasize: I think singling out titles and abstracts for ridicule, even when accompanied by a more systematic analysis, is extremely bad form. I would have hoped not to see it outside of the theater of legislative committee hearings on research funding.

    Liked by 1 person

    John Gee

    January 18, 2017 at 1:23 am

  2. A colleague of mine teaches a course cross-listed between English and Environmental Studies focusing on literature and film related to environmental issues. Should work developed out of this course not count as MLA-worthy? Furthermore, it seems to me that disciplines have a responsibility to keep space in their disciplinary associations for issues relevant to the organizational and institutional structures of the discipline. I would expect many of the sessions focusing on contingent labor exist because of the fact that modern language fields have some of the highest reliance on contingent labor and the field itself needs to grapple with that that means for its pedagogy and scholarship.



    January 18, 2017 at 2:28 am

  3. John Gee – I’d urge you to read the full original post, and in particular the links I provided to several specific sessions where the presenters ventured far outside of any reasonable claim to expertise tied to an English PhD. This is especially common in the climate activism sessions, where presentations included highly political claims about scientific and social-scientific environmental topics. The products closely resemble the infamous “feminist glacier theory” article of a few months back.

    There are also other sessions that ventured deep into the territories of economics, political science, and history. While it would be mistaken to assert that *no* English PhD anywhere should comment on those fields, the number of English PhDs who are venturing into those fields far exceeds the number we might reasonably expect to have trained in an interdisciplinary specialization that would give them a reasonable claim. This much is also apparent in particular examples where English profs are purporting to present on straight-up economic topics related to globalization and resource allocation chains, and then proceeding to use theories and methods from 19th century Marxian analysis that almost all economists soundly reject. Sessions of that type are very much akin to giving an MLA paper on a biological topic that uses the latest tools of phrenology to “prove” its argument.


    Phil Magness

    January 18, 2017 at 5:24 pm

  4. I also do not dispute the possibility of doing a relevant literary-themed panel on environmental topics. There were a few of those in the 22 separate sessions on environmentalism and climate activism, including 2 on finding environmental themes in Shakespeare and a few individual papers of that sort for other literary topics.

    The relevant points though are (1) at 22 sessions, what is at best a peripheral interdisciplinary application is vastly outnumbering virtually ALL scholarship on direct literary themes at the main annual professional conference on literature, and (2) a number of those environmentalist sessions are pure ideological agenda-pushing – e.g. there was one on how to use Composition 101 to teach environmental activism to community college students.


    Phil Magness

    January 18, 2017 at 5:32 pm

  5. Prof. Magness, as my comment indicates, I did read your post and did read the session descriptions you link to. I don’t think they’re detailed enough to justify the claims you’re making. It’s not possible to confidently assert that a panel claiming to “examine the aesthetic mediations and political challenges of production chains and commodity flows and of mobility and work” does not include an analysis of literature. Though I would grant you that the description’s own aesthetic value is minimal.

    There is, clearly, a prominent and growing interest in environmental politics in literary studies, and this movement is frequently framed as an interdisciplinary one. If you want to argue that members of that movement overstep the bounds of their professional competence, I would be very open to reading criticism of their published work, rather than complaints that their conference panel descriptions use theory jargon and don’t mention individual authors by name.

    I honestly don’t mean to say that you’re wrong, since my familiarity with contemporary literary scholarship is fleeting. While I imagine we would disagree about the boundaries of “literature,” I mainly think this analysis is superficial.


    John Gee

    January 18, 2017 at 6:56 pm

  6. Or rather, I don’t mean to say that you’re wrong about the question of overstepping professional competence. I do imagine that we disagree about the boundaries of “literature” and about the relevance of political and professional topics to the meetings of major scholarly associations.


    John Gee

    January 18, 2017 at 7:00 pm

  7. John Gee – Panels are evaluated and selected based on the titles and abstracts that are submitted to the MLA, not on completely speculative musings about content that may or may not have come up during the verbal portion of the presentation. If the literary merits and subject competencies of a panel are not obvious from the limited information contained in the proposal, that fact is its own evidence that the MLA is not applying a very rigorous screening process for the scholarly qualifications of the submissions it receives.

    I’d be more than happy to look at additional published works on the environmental politics of literature by humanities faculty as well, although I have already read a fair amount of this material. Most of it is of a very low scientific quality, tends to be deeply ideological and oriented toward “climate activism,” and indulges heavily in the circular citation echo chambers that are common in Critical Theory publications. Given that sample, there is no reasonable basis to expect that conference submissions that are subject to an even lower level of peer scrutiny are markedly different or better than the “feminist glaciation”-type papers that appear in print.


    Phil Magness

    January 18, 2017 at 9:19 pm

  8. Ran this discussion by a colleague in our English department who has long been involved in the MLA. Her response: Clearly, someone not in the discipline (doesn’t even seem to understand what the ”L” in MLA stands for—it’s not “literature”.



    January 18, 2017 at 11:02 pm

  9. Mikaila – According to the MLA’s own mission statement, the organization exists to promote “the study and teaching of languages and literatures.” It further identifies its primary disciplines as “literature, language, writing studies, screen arts, digital humanities, pedagogy, and library studies.”

    Of course if you define “language” so broadly that it encompasses anything and everything that employs spoken or written communication of every type, you could conceivably open the door to hackishly ideological garbage, conspiracy theorizing, uncredentialed meandering forays into other disciplines, and even outright pseudoscholarship. And that is exactly what the original post illustrated.


    Phil Magness

    January 19, 2017 at 2:57 am

  10. This is a problem. But Magness’ claims about “professional competencies” miss the point. Students who get PhDs in English have very little claim to “professional competency” regarding either language or literature. Certainly the former: the average PhD in English Language and Literature has as much training in linguistics or philosophy of language as has a newborn lamb. Most of what the others may have is the Saussure-via-Derrida version of philosophy of language knowledge which is worse than none at all. And the “literature” element of most research in English is plot summary that makes no distinction between the narrative elements of film or of literature: nothing, that is, about literature as a language-phenomenon. Just plain old “cultural studies.”

    On the other hand, most PhDs in English at universities that require a committee member from outside the home department will have worked reasonably closely with an actual social scientist (at my place the most common “cognate member” departments for English dissertations are history, anthropology, sociology) during the PhD.

    So the “interdisciplinary” stuff may be (slightly) more competent than Magness suspects. But he’s right that very little of what goes on at the MLA has anything to do with literature or language as distinctive fields of scholarly competence, and that’s a real shame.



    January 19, 2017 at 2:20 pm

  11. Whether their background is in literature or an obscurantist strain of philosophy of language, I am certain of one thing:

    Very few of the attendees of the MLA convention have any reasonable claim to a professional competency in the social sciences, and likely none have that claim when it comes to the hard sciences.

    As many of the panels I discussed are explicitly on topics that belong to economics, political science, and the hard sciences, it may be fairly concluded that the faculty presenting on these things are venturing outside of their professional competencies.


    Phil Magness

    January 20, 2017 at 6:16 pm

  12. There may be a bit more overlap with sociology and anthropology. But (1) the panels in question to are much closer to the domain of political science, economics, and their public policy extensions than anthropology or sociology, and (2) having a single outside dissertation reader from a single social science does not make one professionally competent in all social sciences, or even moderately trained in the one social science that the reader came from.


    Phil Magness

    January 20, 2017 at 6:20 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: